When rabbis want to remind us of the power of debate and diversity in Jewish life, they cite the famous dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. In the Talmud, both schools loudly insist that Jewish law, halacha, should be interpreted according to their views. In the story, the Divine Voice interrupts their argument, saying “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim” — These and these are the words of the Living God — that is, even contradictory ideas, if expressed in good faith, can be worthwhile and holy. Of course, there are limits, and often someone has to be right, which is why the Divine Voice adds, “and the halacha is according to Beit Hillel.”
The notion of holy debate is eroding in a culture that prefers partisanship to compromise, and insists the middle ground is for losers or sellouts. This erosion is compounded by politicians who would rather win than actually solve the problems they were elected to address, and by the self-righteous who would rather cancel the Shammais of the world.
Meanwhile, our consumption of media becomes an experiential feedback loop, with algorithms that reinforce who we are and what we believe by mining, and narrowing, our choices and interests.
The Jewish world is hardly immune. Too many of us, as groups and individuals, retreat into a “filter bubble” of like-mindedness. There are fewer ecumenical forums for exchanging ideas with those with whom we might disagree. Like ideologically narrow cable outlets, too many synagogues have become places to reinforce our prejudices. Shammai and Hillel rarely meet, let alone debate.
What is the solution to this cognitive isolation? Perhaps immodestly, we suggest that the Jewish media are, or can be, places where Jews can meet across ideological, denominational, age and gender lines. Places where you don’t have to agree with everything you read or hear, but can appreciate the sincerity of those who think differently than you do, and even learn from their counter-arguments. The best Jewish media outlets stake out this place, which is neither “common ground” nor the squishy “middle”; instead, it is a public forum, where all people of good faith and civil bearing are welcome to share their ideas without being shouted down.
A diverse Jewish public forum has always been hard to sustain, as you can tell by our decision, beginning next week, to put the print edition of The Jewish Week on pause as we look for a more economically sustainable model. Some Jewish organizations, like UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Funders Network, understand the value of a diverse Jewish media, and have been quietly building support for new models and funding streams.
We have confidence in these efforts. The alternative is too grim to consider: a community whose members only talk to people with whom they agree, and who stop hearing the Divine Voice in the other.